Restaurants near Saddleback College served with a double whammy of closures

Staff work at J San Ramen Restaurant in Mission Viejo on March 15, 2020. Heather Wieshlow/Lariat

Mission Viejo restaurants have experienced a double whammy when it comes to business, due to ongoing California coronavirus orders and the Saddleback College campus being closed through the end of the year.

A series of openings and closures for businesses began on March 18, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay at home order to contain the spread of COVID-19. This left restaurants with the ability to do take-out. However, they were required to close their indoor facilities for dining.

The initial order was lifted on May 12, which allowed restaurants to reopen their doors for full service dining, with masks and social distancing restrictions. However, over the next two months, a surge of coronavirus cases drove up the infection rate and hospitalizations in Orange County. Once again, restaurants were required to close indoor activities on July 13.

Orange County moved from the purple tier to the red tier on California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy on Sept. 8. This tier system loosens or tightens restrictions based on test positivity and hospitalizations. This has allowed restaurants to reopen but at 25% of their normal indoor capacity.

Restaurants have faced many challenges during the pandemic. Those closer to Saddleback College have also missed out on the influx of students, teachers and staff that would normally frequent their establishments in the fall.

Saddleback College serves an average of 26,000 students per semester and over 9,000 professors and staff, based on data from the college student dashboard. This semester, students and teachers are attending classes online, though prior to the pandemic “approximately 73% of classes were held in-person,” confirmed Saddleback College’s marketing department. These numbers translate into a loss of customers for the Mission Viejo restaurants located near to the college.

Manager Raphael Davila supervises the front counter on Sept. 11 at Albertaco’s, Mission Viejo. Heather Wieshlow/Lariat

“We normally see an uptick in college students coming to eat beginning in September, but this year it has gone down,” said Raphael Davila, manager at Albertaco’s Mexican Restaurant in Mission Viejo.

This is not only an issue for local restaurants but also applies to the many businesses located near the 41 universities and community colleges in Orange County. Most academic institutions have switched to an online format for the remainder of the year, with spring classes yet to be determined. This has left restaurants scrambling to make up the revenue they would usually get from the customers coming from the school.

J San Ramen is a small ramen house in a strip-mall across the street from Saddleback and serves ramen, rice and curries.

They opened a year ago and chose the location to be “near the school’s heavy foot traffic,” co-owner Dana King said. With plans to gear their marketing efforts toward the “students who get together and come in to relax and have something warm to eat after a full day at school.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, is a loan designed to provide an incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. King obtained a loan through the program and re-hired employees to work after the first closure. However, the ongoing state orders to open and close, made it difficult to effectively use the funds.

When she was forced to close indoor operations a second time, it became more challenging.  “It was difficult, because we incurred payroll, but couldn’t serve anyone,” King said.

The state closures were compounded by the college campus closure with 30% to 40% of their business coming from the school. “No one is here now,” King said.

Restaurants have sought out innovative and creative ways to increase business and reach out to their communities. Albertaco’s Mexican Restaurant has “been able to partner with online delivery services which has supplemented our business,” said Raphael Davila, manager of Albertaco’s. Some cities have even partnered with restaurants to create outdoor dining areas, including Laguna Beach, Orange and Aliso Viejo.

King has implemented specials and online advertising to attract customers from the surrounding area and is constantly brainstorming creative ways to bring in new business. “We have even implemented some new tastes for our one-year anniversary next week,” King said.